At Owen Brown Interfaith, a groundbreaking moment

Expansion is celebrated and a founder is honored


October 06, 2002|By Donna W. Payne | Donna W. Payne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

An enthusiastic cross-section of Columbia gathered at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center yesterday to mark the start of an ambitious new era for the center, and to honor one of its most important founders.

The event was a groundbreaking ceremony for a $1.4 million renovation and expansion of the 18-year-old center. On hand, and lifting the first shovelful of dirt, was the Rev. Margaret Odell, minister emerita of Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, which is funding the project.

Later, a birthday party was held inside the center for Odell, who turned 90 on Thursday. Many credit her as a key figure in the building of the interfaith center in the 1980s.

"They used to tease me: `We never would have had a building without you,'" Odell said. "That wasn't true, but I gave [the Unitarians] a process to decide."

"She gave us the kind of guidance you need when you pool all your resources together and decide, `Yes, I really want to build,'" said Eileen Henderson, a founding member of the Unitarian congregation.

The Owen Brown Interfaith Center is jointly owned by the Unitarian congregation and Christ United Methodist Church. Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Baptist congregations also worship there. The Unitarian and Methodist congregations sponsored the construction of the center under the leadership of Odell and the Rev. Mary E. Kraus, who was minister of the Methodist congregation at the time. The two met during a county ministerial meeting at which they were the only clergywomen.

The expansion will bring four new offices, additional restrooms, new and renovated classrooms, and a new entrance and lobby with elevator access for the disabled, said Anna Wing, a member of the architectural liaison committee.

"The facade is beautiful," she said. "It's going to be all windows, [with] different shades of tinted [glass] squares."

The entrance is an important element of the redesign because, some say, at present the building does not proclaim its function as an interfaith center.

"Most people don't even know it's an interfaith center because it looks like a day care center," said Unitarian church member Sheri Spandau, referring to the day care center that is a long-time tenant of the interfaith center.

Wing said that, with new landscaping, the children's playground will be moved farther from the road and a "rain garden" will be created to ensure that rainwater seeps into the underground water table rather than running into storm drains. The renovations are expected to be completed in the summer. The renovated facilities will be rented out for events.

About 90 people attended yesterday's groundbreaking, which took place under an open white tent. Plans, drawings, and a model of the renovated facility were on display. The Rev. Richard A. Nugent, interim minister of the Unitarian congregation, the Rev. Gladys Joyner Hubbard, pastor of the Methodist congregation, County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, and County Executive James N. Robey spoke briefly. Dels. Elizabeth Bobo, Shane E. Pendergrass, and Frank S. Turner also attended.

Odell's birthday party featured a catered dinner and a cake with her picture on it. Each table was presided over by a host who had decorated it with a floral centerpiece and his or her best china and silverware. Cathy Muller, director of religious education for the Unitarian congregation, read excerpts from a biography of Odell that she wrote.

Odell came to the congregation in 1979 at age 66, after a lifetime of service as a religious educator and resource person for the Unitarian denomination. Henderson said that she was a "splendid leader" who, during her three-year tenure, showed the small and loosely organized congregation how to be "more structured," and guided them into a building program and the calling of their first full-time minister.

Odell said she remembers wondering at the groundbreaking nearly 20 years ago whether she would live to see the building loan paid off. Reaching that milestone was a "nice day" for her, she said, adding this new milestone for the interfaith center is "very exciting."

Odell lives in Columbia and worships at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center. She said that the Unitarian congregation has been "very thoughtful and caring" to her.

"I am very grateful, and I feel very happy to be in a place where I'm still loved and they're going on and doing great things without me. And that's fine, too."

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